Sightlines are Important

A few days ago we went to visit Versailles, which is a French palace initially built by King Louis XIII and expanded upon by Kings Louis XIV through XVI. The palace itself is a seriously impressive building; these guys knew what they were doing!

The exterior of the “original” palace built by Louis XIII

However, as gorgeous and gilded and amazing as the palace was, the true gem of the estate is the gardens. In these are acre upon acre of green spaces, luxurious fountains and statuary, orchards, lawns, etc. And while there were as many people in the gardens as in the palace, some spaces were so remote that you could be alone in them.

One of the quieter spaces, the Collonade Grove

The true power of the gardens lies in its design; the way that the paths intersect, forming fun shapes and allowing sight across the entire vista. Several paths gave lines of sight from one major monument to the next (aka terminal vistas).

Example of a terminal vista: this is a view from the palace of Versailles to the very end of the garden, where Apollo’s Fountain is located

These terminal vistas are symbols of several things: for one, they tell the visitor that there was immense forethought into the planning of this enormous garden. These sightlines don’t occur by accident!

Second, the effect of these sightlines expands on the formality of the space. After all Versailles was, in the time of Louis XIV, a working mansion; it was where he hosted his courtiers and foreign dignitaries (when he wasn’t in Paris) and was essentially his seat of power. These main pathlines are perhaps not the place for a casual stroll.

Further on that point, the terminal vistas are ultimately a sign of power. To have created this space, the Louis’ must have had enormous power: to pay, to instruct, and to enforce the creation and maintenance of the garden. On top of the gorgeous palace, the garden would have signified to honored guests “this is the king’s territory.”

view of the Chateau Versailles from Apollo’s Fountain

And to top it all off, several of the paths ended with the sight of the palace, or the Latona’s Fountain immediately in front of it. To me this gave the impression that no matter where I was in the garden, I could be pretty easily tracked by anybody who wanted to track me… and from only a few choice locations.

view of the Chateau Versailles from the Neptune Fountain

All in all, I had a lovely time exploring the garden with my classmates; we had perfect weather, and it was wonderful to get out of the stuffy, packed palace into a more “natural” (albeit meticulously manicured) space!